Nuclear Power is not the Enemy, my Friend

Last week I read my local paper to find, once again, Carrie Dickerson hailed as a hero for shutting down the planned Black Fox nuclear power plant in northeastern Oklahoma nearly four decades ago.

She may have been a fine woman and I’m sure she was. But she was a hero only to those who are vehemently opposed to nuclear power at all costs or those who don’t really know any better and back any environmental cause no matter the proof behind it.

The Tulsa World, a stellar newspaper for which I used to work, ran a fine article by Michael Overall, an excellent writer whom I also know, recounting Dickerson’s victory over Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and the nuclear power industry. Her admittedly stalwart efforts started in the late 1970s and culminated in PSO’s decision not to build the plant in 1982.

Everything must be taken in context, of course. During that era, most people in the U.S. still feared the nuclear war with the Soviet Union as possible, maybe even probable. Nuclear power was a dirty word, despite that fact that it emits zero carbon emissions and had powered Navy submarines for decades. Then Three Mile Island happened in 1979, a partial meltdown which occurred due to a coolant loss. “The China Syndrome,” a film which had the fortunate timing of coming out around the Three Mile Island event, was selling the dangers of nuclear power on the screen. Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne were singing out against it at the No Nukes Concert.

All of these starstruck efforts amounted to hype with only the slightest of circumstantial evidence. This is not to say that Three Mile Island was not a crucial lesson about the dangers of nuclear power. The disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) seven years later killed anywhere from 56 workers directly and likely thousands more from radiation sickness. Yet that disaster followed few, if any, of the safety backups used by the U.S. Chernobyl also fell victim to the Soviet penchant for lack of transparency and forthright communication.

But that has never happened in the U.S. In fact, the deaths which have occurred at U.S. plants are from electrocution—touching energized wires—or equipment falling on workers. A release of radiation has never killed a single worker.

Certainly it could happen someday, but it hasn’t. Meanwhile, an MIT study estimates that 200,000 Americans die from air pollution annually. Wastewater injection made necessary by shale drilling for natural gas may be causing earthquakes in my home state of Oklahoma. Wind turbines kill tens of thousands of birds annually. Environmentalists love solar energy—and I do, too—and yet millions of American get skin cancer every year. What’s so nice about the sun?

Yes, I’m kidding about the last point, because what are you going to do about the sun?  But the home truth is this: Whether or not President Trump allows the Clean Power Plan to go forward, America is getting greener and intent on cutting carbon emissions. And you are unlikely to reach those goals while also keeping the grid reliable without nuclear power.

Nuclear power plants produce close to 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. Yet only one new unit—Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar II—has come online in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, some utilities are retiring nuclear plants because of unfavorable economics against historically cheap natural gas and tax credits for wind and solar.

The United States may come to regret this shortsighted hysteria in coming decades. Demand will ultimately rise, but with fewer coal-fired units to meet base-load needs, the burden on the grid grows starker. Nuclear power plants, once completed, are cheap forms of clean energy which also provide stability to the grid. Wind and solar, although clean and renewable, are not reliable nor adequate once the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

Yes, Germany and other countries made a big splash in moving away from nuclear and fossil-fuel generation toward renewables. Perhaps technology and data analytics can make that work, but even some in Europe are questioning the long-term wisdom of the energiewende movement.

So Carrie Dickerson and many of those like her were well-meaning souls who believed they were protecting their homeland against a potential radiating evil. But they were wrong, if not about public fears surrounding Black Fox certainly about the U.S. nuclear power industry as a whole.

We need it, here and now and going forward until something better is found. Nuclear power, properly maintained and protected, is not an evil. It’s a necessity for the modern U.S. power grid. Some might even call it a gift.

 

 

 

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  • The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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